Over the years I have read more books about the Beatles than I care to admit to and they vary in quality from pretty good to absolutely terrible. However, when Mark Lewisohn announced that he would be writing the `definitive' biography of the band, fans believed him. Lewisohn is not only THE Beatles expert, but he is also someone who has an obvious love for them. In other words, he is also a fan and the little details, which intrigue us, also interest him.
This first volume looks at their family history and childhood, then splits into five chapters; taking detailed looks at the years 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961 and 1962. From the first, two things become abundantly clear - that the author understands the relationship between John and Paul and that he is keen to debunk myths that have become almost accepted - especially ones built around John's childhood. Yes, his childhood was difficult, but films such as "Nowhere Boy" have created a totally fictional account of what happened and even recent books, such as "When They Were Boys" by Larry Kane, simply repeats them. Stories of Mimi dodging bombs to visit the baby John in hospital or John's mother and father forcing him to choose between them in an emotional `tug of love' are just that - stories. Mimi also gets a much more sympathetic portrayal and we learn how, rather than trying to keep John's father away from him, she even allowed him to write to his son from prison. They may have lost touch, but it was certainly not Mimi's fault that they did.
Having established that he wants to tell the story as the truth, Mark Lewisohn is certainly not portraying the band in a better light, or concealing their flaws. They were young boys at this time, each with their own character traits and faults, as everyone has. He also ties in what was happening to other people who enter the story at a later date - Brian Epstein, George Martin and other musicians are there, sometimes almost within touching distance, but their paths not quite intersecting. Most interestingly for fans, he has tracked down people that have simply not been heard from before - school friends, those who worked with them in early jobs, fans, people who were there but have not been considered perhaps important enough to be interviewed before - as well as the more obvious characters in the Beatles story.
This, then, is the complete timeline of those early years - the founding of the Quarrymen, John and Paul meeting at the St Peter's Fete, George joining the band, Ringo becoming part of Rory and the Hurricanes, early auditions, success and failure, and of that first trip to Hamburg, which honed their sound and changed them into a band - even if they were always, "John, Paul, George and a drummer" at this stage. Lewisohn is not afraid to state what most fans have always known - that Pete Best was asked to go to Hamburg simply because they needed a drummer in order to fulfil the contract and that, almost from the point the poor man packed his kit into Allan Williams van, he was on borrowed time as a member and certainly never a Beatle.
Returning to Liverpool, there is the show at Litherland Town Hall which showcased how good they had become, as the Liverpool scene took off and the Beatles - sneered at before leaving - were undoubtedly now the top band in the city. They were the Kings of Liverpool but, as always, wanted more. Enter Brian Epstein, who Bob Wooler remarks, came to the Cavern to watch them - "he came, he saw and he was conquered." There follows the long road towards a recording contract, a changing image with the arrival of suits, the death of Stuart Sutcliffe and the beginning of George, in particular, conspiring to get Ringo in the band. It was also the beginning of girls hanging around their houses, which would never stop from that point on.
With the Beatles finally achieving that recording contract, it was essential to change drummers. They were then no longer "John, Paul, George and a drummer" , but changed to "John, Paul, George and Ringo"- four equal members. "Love Me Do" peaked at number 17, but considering the lack of exposure and the resistance to the Beatles it was amazing the record ever took off. "So, what's from Liverpool?" sneered Dick James, when George Martin told him about `the boys'. That North-South divide was about to be smashed down, as Merseybeat would explode on a jaded British pop market. If London was uninterested at first, then the US certainly resisted anything from England. However, even they would succumb to the charm, charisma, enthusiasm, energy and talent of the Beatles. For the Beatles itself, it was no surprise. As John Lennon said, they always knew they were "the best" and "it was just a matter of time before everybody else caught on."
Sadly, Mark Lewisohn has not yet written the second and third parts of this trilogy, but if they are anything as complete, well written (his dry humour can almost rival the Beatles themselves) and his desire to tell the story as it should be told, then they will be worth waiting for. In the meantime, there is an extended, two volume edition of this book due out soon. I cannot imagine what Lewisohn may have left out, but I am quite sure that I will enjoy reading it to find out. This book has been needed for a long while, it is a triumph and I am sure it will become the definitive biography of the Beatles.
on 10 October 2013
If you've read any of Mark Lewisohn's previous books, you'll know he's the definitive Beatles historian, and now he has been given special access to various sources and material to write the definitive story of the fab four. `Tune In', is the highly anticipated first part of a trilogy titled `All These Years' that has taken almost a decade to complete and as Lewisohn clarifies "all the information is tested, accurate, and free of airbrushing".
While many will ask do we need another Beatle book? It's clear from the opening pages here that the author is digging deeper than the official Anthology did a decade ago, so deep in fact that Volume 1 is over 800 pages and details the early days of childhood right up to the end of 1962, and the release of their first single.
While most of their 214 tracks recorded in 7 years will be dealt with in Volumes 2 and 3, here we get the complete story of the 1100 hours performing (and 38 weeks spent) in Hamburg, which Lennon commented "we went in young boys and came out old men". These are the formative years, the less visible years, and possibly the most fascinating and exciting period of their career.
The opening chapters cover the period up to 1945 and Lewisohn is clever here. All the Beatles family trees are well rooted, but he keeps it brief, keeps the reader entertained throughout, switching between the births of Ringo and John, while his factual account of John choosing between his mother and father is the ready made script for a Hollywood movie. By the time we get to July 1954 the author has John, Paul, George & Ringo's lives intersecting with each other on every page, writing that Tarantino would have been proud of.
While The Beatles story has been told many times and Lewisohn has read over 500 of those books, he covers plenty of material a lot of the die-hards probably haven't read before. From calling themselves Japage, to who George bought his first fully electric guitar from, and Paul getting his girlfriend pregnant in 1960 it's all here
It's fascinating to read that when they shared a bill with other bands they would go off and rehearse obscure songs that the other bands wouldn't know, keeping ahead of the pack, or the day of reckoning when John offered Paul an ultimatum to choose between working in a factory, and a gig in the cavern. Paul choose the latter and effectively created pop music's most famous song writing duo, and later as a group they would stand up to George Martin, insisting on recording their own material, without doubt a defining moment in their career.
Whether it's John & Paul's compositions together (Too Bad About Sorrows and I Fancy Me Chances), Paul's `I Call It Suicide', John writing `Calypso Rock', George Martin's mistress, or what city their Beatle hair-cut originated in, it's all revealed here with numerous rare photographs from those early years.
While there is a Premier edition of this book also available (about 2,000 pages) I'm more than happy to say this is the definitive story of The Beatles up to New Years Eve 1962 with world -wide domination only around the corner.
There's no doubting the quality, time, dedication and research Lewisohm has put into this and it shows throughout, and I'm sure he'll do the same with Volume 2 in 5 years time. As he humorously claims Saturday 18th August 1962 was the start of the Liverpool 60s. Liverpool F.C. returned to the top division and "up to that point it was John, Paul, George and a drummer, now it was John, Paul, George and Ringo".
on 10 November 2013
To Beatles addicts like myself ("OK then, just one more biography and I'm done") this is one to savour. There have been plenty of readable accounts of the pre-fame Beatles before. I would always recommend Philip Norman's Shout and Alan Williams's heavily biased but entertaining the Man Who Gave The Beatles Away. But in the absence of a hard nosed academic albeit enthusiastic historian's job on the story there were some big and unexplained gaps. So do you want to know what happened during the year long 'dead period' where The Quarrymen were without any gigs or a drummer? It's all filled in over hundreds of pages. Want the low-down on John and Paul's two weeks in Paris as The Nerk Twins? A whole chapter. And want a witness's account of what really happened when John's mum and dad decided on his upbringing? Prepare to read this and several other received stories shot down in flames.
In this mammoth tome Lewisohn brings new life to a great story (and the history of The Beatles really is a great story) and, as importantly, as a backdrop he gives a good account of a remarkable cultural renaissance in a remarkable city. Simply as a social history it rightly kicks back at the lazy Dominic Sandbrook school of postwar revisionism which seeks to belittle the postwar political consensus. More specifically, without the NHS Ringo wouldn't have lived past the age of 7 and without decent affordable council housing the McCartneys might have been destitute after the death of Paul's mother and the consequent loss of income. In other words, No Atlee or Bevan, no Beatles.
This took over a decade to write and the detail makes it worth the wait. I only hope we don't have to wait so long for volumes 2 and 3.
I have been avidly reading Beatle biographies since I was a child and am the proud owner of an extensive Beatles' library and Beatles' collection. The books I have read range from the trashy, silly little pop books such as "The Beatles' Book" which was just an extension of the inane teen 'zines that just make the Beatles sound like innocents instead of the worldly young men that they were to scholarly works such as this book. The Beatle Literati is quite impressed with this book and give it the highest of recommendations.
Mark Lewisohn is plainly a Beatles' fan and someone who appreciates their work; their history and them as people without being a sycophant. He is plainly a gifted researcher and this book contains fresh information that many other works have not included. He digs into great detail aspects of each Beatle's life as well as those closest to the Beatles, such as Klaus and Astrid; their manager Brian Epstein; Good Ol' Freda and others in the music business as well as the Beatles' close relatives. This is also one of the few books that include the details of the senior Harrisons' marriage in 1931, just 3 months before George's sister Louise was born. Only a few books expose the myth that they married a year before their only daughter's birth; Louise Harrison herself discloses this in My Kid Brother's Band... a.k.a. The Beatles and so does Kevin Roach in George Harrison That's The Way God Planned It
This well detailed tome covers the Beatles' post boyhood years starting with the banner year of 1958 and ends in 1962 when Ringo finally joins the band. 1958 is an especially crucial year for the Beatles as John's mother died in a tragic accident; Paul introduced John to George and George was accepted into the nascent band then called the Quarrymen and Louise Harrison took an angry young man named John under her wing when her son George brought him home for tea in early 1958.
Stories that have been bandied about for many years are brought to light in this work. John's Aunt Mimi, who raised him from the age of 5 did not dodge bombs and war balloons to visit her sister Julia in the hospital when Julia delivered John. From all accounts, Mimi told her nephew that Julia and John's father ("that Alf Lennon" as the Stanley Sisters called him) had fallen out of love and at one point "that Alf Lennon" was in jail.
Another myth that has been exposed to light in recent years is that of the senior Harrisons' marriage. Many books reported that they got married in 1930, a year after they met. It is Kevin Roach and daughter Louise Harrison herself who set the record straight on that count. Harold Sr. and Louise French met in 1927 when they were 18 and 16 respectively. Apparently many authors feared tarnishing the boys' image if it was publicly known that the Harrisons enjoyed each other's company which resulted in the birth of their daughter Louise prior to getting married.
Ringo, who from all accounts had the most difficult boyhood of the Beatles is given a turn at bat. In this book, details of his multiple illnesses and protracted convalescenses are provided in fuller detail as opposed to the sketchy, skeletal accounts other books have provided. Another bonus is seeing previously unpublished pictures of the Beatles such as Ringo, then 6 or 7 recovering during the first of his long illnesses and an especially nice picture of Louise and Harold posing on a couch.
Lewisohn is a truly extraordinary author. He does not whitewash anything; he is objective in his portrayal of historical accounts. He does not pretend that the Beatles or anybody else in their circle is anything other that what they are. He takes readers on a Magical Mystery Tour from the Beatles' births in wartime Liverpool to their later meeting and forming a band. The earliest incarnation of the group was known as the Quarrymen after Quarrybank High School where John and Paul were students. Readers are invited to the July 1957 church fete in Woolton where John and his then band gave a public performance. Paul McCartney, then 15 was one of the people in the crowd. Paul knew John was a musician who was going places and he wanted to join him.
The band went through several more incarnations with different members in their line up. Long story short, Ringo joined the group in 1962 after turning down another offer as the pay wasn't as good as what the Beatles were offering. The other Beatles felt that their original drummer Pete Best was not a good fit or match for them personality wise and professionally. It was reported that Pete was chosen because the band was under contract to hire a drummer and he was the only game in town. However, once the band was more or less in place, other drummers such as Johnny Hutch filled in as Pete was not always available. Pete was known for not conforming to the group's universal Beatle mop coiffure; he was consistently late and sometimes absent for rehearsals and shows and it was said that he and Paul were not friendly toward one another.
Readers also get a Ticket to Ride with Ringo during his early band years with the Hurricanes and subsequent trips to Butlin's Holiday Camp and Hamburg, the city where the early pre-Beatles cut their musical teeth. In 1960 the pre-Beatles, led by their intrepid leader John, then 20 made their first trip to Hamburg. The senior Harrisons, after much deliberation agreed to let their minor son George, then 17 join them. In today's world one might wonder about letting these young men travel to Hamburg "In Spite of All the Danger" and no doubt George was delighted that he got to travel out of the country with a group of guys, the oldest of whom was John. Sadly, George was deported as he was underage. Despite that set back, George grew up a lot in Hamburg. He also reconnected with his bandmates when they returned to England later that year and for their 1961 trip to Hamburg.
By 1962 the Beatles had arrived! Freshly coiffed with their iconic Beatle mops that so many, myself included love and dressed like gentlemen in suits and ties per their manager's directive, the boys were ready to conquer the world! Brian Epstein's astute business acumen and professional handling helped the boys prepare for the roles of their lifetimes - selling their talent and image to the world! The Beatles were the best known, best loved band in Liverpool and were regular fixtures at the famous Cavern Club. There is the trajectory or "Long & Winding Road" to recording deals and contracts and world tours.
Fans were also a constant fixture. Each Beatle's boyhood home was considered a Mecca of Music for fans to congregate and hopefully meet a Beatle. Louise Harrison actually wrote fans back, staying up late into the night to finish correspondence with help from Harold. It was not uncommon for her to invite a fan in for tea and light refreshments while chatting each other up about George. Louise always talked about George's three older siblings and even lent her voice to one of his fan club newsletters. This is chronicled in Do You Want to Know a Secret?: The Story of the Official George Harrison Fan Club.
This book ends in 1962 when the Beatles' "Love Me Do" was recorded and hit the Top Twenty. This was less than a year before George Harrison made his first trip abroad to visit his sister Louise who was then living in Benton Illinois. Louise shopped the Beatles' records around and to her credit got area radio stations to play Beatle songs. By 1962-63, music in America still had the last vestiges of the 1950s style. The Beatles brought in a fresh new look, sound and style. They were and are here to stay and they have raised the musical bar.
England has long been known for class distinctions. Voice and whether one lives in the North or South of England has long been a social class distinction. Liverpool, a northern seaport town was not held in high regard by "Southerners." (A reference to "Southerners" is made in the Beatles' 1964 movie, "A Hard Day's Night.") The Beatles changed all that. Music and art is for everybody and not just one demographic. The Beatles made no such distinctions and even as late as 1964 refused to play the Gator Bowl in Florida when they found out that minorities were being denied entry. They refused to perform before a segregated audience. The Beatles helped dismantle some of the bigotry and class dividing lines. They also sparked a world-wide interest in things English and became in effect World Ambassadors. The four young men that the world at large loved invited people from all over the world; from all different backgrounds and all different walks of life to "Come Together."
I am looking forward to the next installments of the trilogy that Lewisohn is scheduled to write. Knowing what I know of Lewisohn's writing and extraordinary flair for detail, I expect his subsequent books to be every bit as excellent and exceptional and outstanding as this one.
on 17 July 2015
Tune In is Mark Lewisohn’s new history of The Beatles up to the end of 1962. This is one enormous slab of a book in itself but even at 840 pages plus introduction, notes and index it’s only the first third of something even bigger called All These Years which will surely be the last word on this already copiously written about group (the other two volumes are in preparation). Incredibly, this doorstop is the streamlined, edited version of Lewisohn’s work – I thought I was a Beatles obsessive, but even I balk at the extended edition which is twice as long and is currently going for about a thousand pounds on Amazon (or about forty quid on Kindle). Is there really anything more to be said on this subject that hasn’t been comprehensively covered already?
As it turns out: yes, actually, there is. Despite its sheer weight making it a bit of an awkward read anywhere except in an armchair or at a lectern Tune In is, presuming you’ve got a healthy interest in its subject, a real page-turner. It’s written in a clear, accessible style and while Lewisohn doesn’t skimp on presenting the fruits of his formidable research into, for example, the family backgrounds of these boys and the myriad professional and amateur bands working around Liverpool and Hamburg at the time the book hardly ever gets bogged down into dry and unreadable fine detail. Personally, I found the only hard parts to get through were those concerning managerial and publishing contracts but these bits are there for a reason: I never knew before that pressure from a music publisher was one of the deciding factors in George Martin going against his better judgement and allowing the group to release one of their own compositions as their first single. This decision was pretty remarkable. Lennon and McCartney had written dozens of songs together as teenagers but it simply wasn’t the done thing to play your own stuff live and almost all of these were never used – it seems that they didn’t revive their songwriting in any serious way until after they’d secured their recording contract with EMI and had a real possibility of stamping their personalities on the records via the use of their own material.
For the bulk of the book the author does an admirable job of dropping you into the lives of a group of bright young men growing up in Liverpool in the late 50s who are confident and talented enough to want to make music but have no establishment connections on their side to do any favours for them. These boys were obsessed with rock’n’roll at a time when you could only get to listen to it via unreliable pirate radio stations and the odd precious 45rpm record you might be able to pinch from a shop or hear at a party and Lewisohn really communicates the sheer thrill and impact of listening to Elvis, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis for the first time. It must have felt music from outer space when compared to the sedate easy listening fare that the BBC was providing.
John, Paul and George had formed a seemingly unbreakable musical unit as early as 1958 (George was only fourteen at the time) and spent the next couple of years playing sporadic gigs where and with whom they could (at one point they played as trio called Japage 3, which sounds like the name of a particularly naff early 80s futurist outfit). Eventually John persuaded his art school mate Stuart Sutcliffe to fill in on bass but drummers were always a problem. Pete Best only got the gig when a last minute slot for a 1960 season at a Hamburg nightclub comes up and he’s literally the only candidate who’s even vaguely suitable but he never fitted in and the book is particularly thorough at presenting all the reasons that he was dropped just as the group was about to break big, even if seemed like a shocking and callous decision at the time. Hamburg really marks the start of the group as a cultural phenomenon: from this point they’re maturing and evolving at an explosive rate, working through a vast repertoire of popular standards and rhythm and blues obscurities as they unfailingly whip up their audiences into a very un-British frenzy.
Tune In ends, somewhat frustratingly, at the end of 1962 with the group having achieved national success with their first single Love Me Do and with the surefire follow-up Please Please Me about to be unleashed. They’ve got to this point through a combination of raw talent, unabashed confidence and tireless guidance on the part of manager Brian Epstein, and have had startling luck in falling into the hands of George Martin, probably the only record producer working in the UK who had the good taste and judgement to let them be themselves, despite his initial misgivings about them. A project on this scale can hardly be recommended for the casual reader (if you’re only ever going to read one book on this subject Ian MacDonald’s Revolution In The Head is still my favourite, even if I don’t always agree with him) but it’s clearly as definitive as anyone could wish for, and it’s highly readable too (although I hope they clear up the typos for the next reprint). Great photos too.
Thousands of books have been written about the Beatles - so do we really need another one.
In the case of Mark Lewisohn the answer is yes yes yes because this is the definitive history of the band. Volume one of a proposed three volume work - it only takes us through to the early sixties but to me the evocation of the lives of four Liverpool Lads who would change the music world is the most important part of their legacy.
Having been on the Magical Mystery coach tour of Liverpool on three occasions and been inside the boyhood homes of Lennon and McCartney, this book helps to put everything together.
Brilliantly researched and written, it will never be matched.
I was worried that this book would be a whitewash given that the author had so much official Apple involvement, but it is anything but. Both Paul and Pete Best take a few knocks in the tome - one letter written by Stuart Sutcliffe reveals that they all hated Paul and Pete Best's drumming seems to have been below standard, this is confirmed by several sources. John and George come out as the coolest Beatles, the book is an eye opener regarding George Harrison - for a skinny dude he was a tough guy. Of course it was the Hamburg section that was the most interesting but the book left me feeling as if I understood the Beatles a little better and I've been a fervent fan for decades and read much on the band. I loved this book, buying it both in print and audio and can't wait for the second part.
When Mark Lewisohn mentioned to the late Neil Aspinall (first the Beatles' roadie, later the boss of their company Apple Corps) that he planned to write a three volume history of the Beatles, Aspinall wondered if the world really needed any more books on the Beatles. This was probably an opinion shared by many fans of the fabs.
Over the decades, hundreds of books have been written about every aspect of the Beatles, so could there possibly be anything new to write about? The answer to that is a definite yes. This is mainly because too many previous books have simply rehashed other books, meaning that stories and myths have over the years become accepted facts.
Lewisohn, who has already written extensively on the group for decades (if you haven't already got it, then his Complete Beatles Recording Sessions is another essential read) has instead gone back to original sources as much as possible. This meant that he, and a number of researchers, spent years tracking down original documents and leafing through newspaper archives, as well as talking to as many people as possible who were there. Time, of course, has caught up with many of them, so he's also taken advantage of the numerous books and interviews already published, although he's been scrupulous in cross-checking these facts with what is actually provable.
Where different people's accounts conflict - he says so, and where something has become accepted fact, but there's no real evidence - then he says so. For example, it's an oft-repeated story that the beating Stuart Sutcliffe received in 1961 contributed to his untimely death in 1962. Lewisohn concedes that it's possible, but there's no real evidence to support this, it's just a story that seems to have hardened into fact since it's been repeated so many times.
The joy of the book is seeing not only John, Paul, George and Ringo come into focus, but how the various people who intermingled with their career at this time - Stuart Sutcliffe, Allan Williams, Pete Best, Brian Epstein, George Martin, amongst many others - come into sharp focus themselves, with their own personalities and motivations being explained and understood.
To take one example, the most controversial aspect of the career of the Beatles in the early days was the sacking of Pete Best, and Lewisohn has been able to present as clear a picture as we're likely to get about exactly who were the prime movers in engineering his exit and his replacement by Ringo.
Clocking in at over 800 pages and covering the events up to the end of 1962, it never felt like that long a book, partially because Lewisohn writes in an engaging style, even with the mass of facts at his fingertips the book never feels dry or stuffy, but mostly because by the time we get to 1961 and the Beatles' career really begins to take off, there's an irresistible momentum to their story which carries the reader along.
The only down-side is that it's probably going to be about five years until volume two comes out, but sadly the research can't be hurried. However, on the evidence of volume one when the second book is published (and whenever volume three follows that) we should be left with the definitive history of one of the cultural phenomenons of the 20th Century. If you're a fan of the Beatles, or simply a fan of a well written biography, then Tune In is an essential read.
on 6 April 2014
Let me say for a start that this is the only volume of the proposed 3 I want to read. The greater the longevity of the achievement, the more the detailing becomes a series of lists. In the next 2, if I look at them at all, I'll be diving into the index to see what Lewisohn has to say about certain lurid and celebtrated characters ... but (post propter hoc) I find all I did in fact want to know, and am still contemplating every day in a little part of my imagination and memory, is this part of the story.
Let me pay tribute too to what everyone else has noticed: the weaving of the stories. Deftly sliding into the footnotes and then gradually surfacing in the texts, the secondary characters make their appearance - Linda, Jane, and dozens of others. The moment Linda's family perished is attached by footnote to a key moment in the text, and a strong plausible narrative connection is made.
Jane's flaming red hair is greatly admired by the McCartney brothers as they watch the seasoned 15 year-old actress going through her paces on "Juke Box Jury", the very television programme one would have McCartney watch if one knew nothing about his television viewing in those years. The whole cast is established - Tolstoyan in its significance and detail - at the same time as the story is told, but most of the time there is no distinction between the introduction of characters one knows to be essential later on, and the unrolling narrative - epic in its magnitude as it is. What an extraordinary achievement that is.
As the story develops one notices the absences. This, I felt, was deliberate. Some appearances should not be pre-empted. Yoko Ono appears repeatedly in the appendices, where repeated tributes are paid to her assistance - which gives one astounded pause each time - and, most excitingly, Lewisohn alludes to new material he (of all people) was unaware of until she made it available to him. What can it be? Wait and see.
Her appearance and the explication, if any, of this matter, are what will make me read volumes 2 and 3. As things stand by the end of volume 1, though, Yoko in absentia is like Martin Seymour-Smith's wonderful evocation of Laura Riding, at the end of his biography of Robert Graves. Not having it to hand I paraphrase that she is like a standing-stone in a landscape casting a long, cold, ominous shadow over the hero's life; and anyone dealing with the poet must deal with the effect of the shade she cast.
Lewisohn's authorial voice is unique. He has to deal with very dark material and many years of penury, delinquency, deprivation, and downright cruelty and neglect. I expected his approach would be a consistent repudiation of Albert Goldman and take a side in the rather fatuous debate about how good or bad or pleasant or unpleasant a person Lennon was. Not a bit of it. He warmly accommodates and incorporates Goldman's views and Goldman's material, never disputing any of what shocked people so much about Goldman's book in 1988, but yet Lennon re-emerges as he should: complex, brilliant, intellectually ravenous, grief-stricken and essentially bitter.
" ... he never was a boy" remarks Lewisohn parenthetically in response to some comment made of Lennon at the time - some time before 1963 - and this is the style of the book - genial, compassionate, and reserving insights for when they are worth making, and then delivering them with apothegmatic brevity.
There is a sort of divine forgiveness and ruefulness flavouring the narrative which would be horrible were it not so nuanced. Just as they have always been, these savages - bloody-minded, wilful, randy, grossly sexist and often downright gross are shown without any apparent extenuation one can easily identify, and yet one feels that such an almighty effort of understanding, and analysis and presentation of context (for some reason I was particularly taken with the handsome ttribute to Bessie Braddock MP and the awful munching of labour-camp grub in the form of "Scollops") takes one beyond liking or disliking and temporarily into a place where people are seen as they were. Beyond judgement and into understanding.
Having said this, the immediate impression one has of the style of writing is its humour. This is what moves the enormous project along so deftly " ... where Miss Powell showed she was not a nun", and many other little touches of the kind, which lead one to picturing Lewishn as ribald and somewhat Falstaffian, chuckling as he writes. Yet note how that comment spares a gesture towards Cynthia's point of view - that she trounced the posturing male, not that she fell a victim to any manly charm (of which there is little enough on display at any point.)
His most serious moments are reserved for anlaysing the music and tracing the fractured threads of sound and inspiration in their fragile web of connections. Much of this is vanishingly slight and unclear, because this music in its origins is the equivalent of oral history - unacademic and extremely informal, but Lewisohn's passion convinces you again and again that it is worth doing. He points forward to the moment that an uncertain, ill-defined half-phrase will be consummated in some unimaginably distant and ebullient masterpiece.
Anyway, night after night I read it, my vision slowly filling with a giant screen full of a rich black-and-white cinematic magnum opus, until it was more or less the most important thing in my life. Not Proust, I'd say, but Tolstoy, and if a film, Renoir.
on 10 November 2013
A review in a national newspaper criticized this book as being bogged down in too much detail. I disagree. The basic story of the Beatles is very well known, and it is this depth of detail that brings new insights, new revelations; so that the history you thought you knew becomes a whole new story. Reading the book you never get the feeling that you're wading through a mass of detail. This is because, firstly, the book presents you with so much new information. There is virtually a surprise on every page. Secondly Mark Lewisohn has such an easy narrative style, full of humour and with an obvious affection for the subject
The book was ten years in the writing, and it shows. He must have read every book, magazine, interview, article, contract, invoice, and scribbled beer mat. However, the author hasn't just accepted everything en mass; he's rejected anything that was embellished or exaggerated, in order to present the most complete history of the era.
Some of the things that struck me include:
*** The role of luck in the story. The government abolished National Service just before John Lennon was due to be conscripted. Without this lucky timing, instead of being in Hamburg, John would have been in the army [or, more likely, living in exile in Ireland.
A similar dose of luck allowed John to obtain a passport in record time, literally at the last minute, which enabled him to take part in that all-important first visit to the Hamburg clubs.
It was really good luck which gave them two key management figures in Brian Epstein and George Martin; a couple of decent chaps in an industry full of sharks.
*** The book not only gives us the story of the individual Beatles, but is also a snapshot of Liverpool life in the period. In particular, for a writer from outside the area Mark Lewisohn displays a complete grasp of 1960s Liverpool idiom and slang.
*** Following their return from Hamburg the Beatles appeared on the bill at the Litherland Town Hall on 27th December 1960, and event widely praised as being the real launch pad of their Liverpool fame. Mark Lewisohn estimates that, at the time, they were the most experienced Rock group in the world. He captures well the excitement of these early live appearances, where audience members became lifelong fans after seeing them just once.
This period, from the Litherland gig until the end of the book, was the pinnacle of the Beatles live act, performing for fans in smoky, sweaty cellars, before they were drowned out by the screams of Beatlemania.
*** I found the relationship between the group and their fans really touching. While the Beatles where over in Hamburg they regularly kept in touch with a band of loyal fans, mainly young girls, with letters, postcards and photos.
*** The author puts a whole new light on the infamous Decca audition, and explains why rejecting the group was a stupid idea, not with hindsight, but at the time. Truly fascinating reading.
*** For the first time I really understand why Pete Best was sacked, and why his position with the group was always tenuous.
***The significance of "Love Me Do" has been largely downplayed in previous Beatles books. To have a first record, by an unknown group, make it into the top twenty, and stay there longer than most others, despite absolutely no promotion by the recording company, was huge. It was during this period that the Beatles battled the London-centric show business establishment, who were not merely indifferent, but actually hostile. They detested the name Beatles, their clothes, hair, and accent. The basic structure seemed to baffle them. Up to now there were vocal groups or instrumental groups, but here were these lads from up North who did both. It was new, it was different and it upset the status quo.
To sum up, I can't recommend this book too highly. The word awesome is overused, but Mark Lewisohn has truly done an awesome job with this first volume. I eagerly await the next.